Spinning Wheels - Our Continual Refusal to Raise CAFE Standards

T.S. Elliot once wrote, "April is the cruelest month. . . ." He wasn't referring to the unfilled promise of The New York Auto Show - which is featuring "advances" in automotive engineering this week at the Javits Convention Center in New York City. But anyone who has visited this event knows - the distance between the potential of fuel efficiency and the reality of fuel efficiency is as vast as it is cruel.

The "Energy Policy Conservation Act," (EPCA) was enacted into law in 1975 and established Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars and light trucks. The goal of the EPCA was to double fuel economy by model year 1985.

The CAFE standards started at a shamefully low level in 1978 when auto companies selling cars in the United States were first required to meet a meager 18 mile per gallon (mpg) auto fleet standard. In 1981 Joan Claybrook, now the President of Public Citizen, was the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As the administration of President Jimmy Carter was winding down, Claybrook advanced a NHTSA notice that called for fuel efficiency standards to reach 48 mpg by 1995. Interestingly the notice pointed out that the auto industry itself said it could reach in excess of 30 mpg fuel economy by 1985 with GM saying it could do 33 mpg. The Reagan Administration didn't waste any time and withdrew the NHTSA notice just three months after it was issued. After the original Congressional mandate of 27.5 mpg took effect in 1985, the Reagan Administration rolled the standard back to 26 mpg in 1986. Finally in 1989 the first Bush Administration moved the standard back to the 1985 level of 27.5 mpg. There was no improvement in the CAFE standards underthe Clinton Administration.

The Bush/Cheney Energy plan of 2001 put off raising CAFE standards. In 2002, Senators John Kerry (D-MA), and John McCain (R-AZ) offered an amendment to the "National Fuel Savings and Security Act of 2002". The amendment called for fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, beginning with model year 2005, to reach a combined average fuel economy standard of at least 36 miles per gallon by 2015. This amendment lost. The pork barrel energy bill of 2003, didn't improve the fuel efficiency standards and was too offensive to consumer and environmental and taxpayer groups to even make it out of Congress. NHTSA has advocated raising fuel economy standards for sport utility vehicles (SUVs), minivans, and pickup trucks a whopping 1.5 mpg by 2007. But, the average fleet efficiency levels in new vehicles have slipped to the lowest level since 1980.

So, here we are in 2004, almost twenty years later, and the standard is at the same pitifully low 27.5 mpg level for passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks and vans. Well it is time for a little introspection. Is the price of gasoline so low consumers don't mind driving gas guzzlers? The Department of Energy says the retail price gasoline in the United States is $1.78. At this price even the least frugal consumers have a real incentive to want fuel efficient automobiles.

Does our country lack the engineering talent to produce fuel efficient vehicles? There are, after all, only 185 engineering schools with doctoral programs and only about 330 colleges and universities that offer bachelor's degree programs in engineering in the United States. I suspect we have abundant engineering talent.

Could it be our Gross Domestic Product of $10.45 trillion is too small to provide the base needed to create a market for fuel efficient cars? Not likely - in 2003 GM's total revenue was $186.8 billion and Ford's revenue was$164.2 billion.

Could it be that auto fuel efficiency is too small an item in our nation's energy mix? Not according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy - they note transportation accounts for 28 percent of U.S. energy consumption and "over three-quarters of transportation energy use is by highway vehicles--60 percent by cars and light trucks (including minivans and sport utility vehicles)."

Fuel efficiency standards are stuck in the mud because the auto industry is obstinate and because our elected officials are docile.

For years, the U.S. auto industry, and the government, have produced "promising prototype" cars which have gone nowhere. Toyota and Honda are starting to make inroads with their gas/electric Hybrid cars. It is time to update the CAFE standards, improve air pollution requirements and spark competition in the marketplace to stimulate the production of cars with greatly reduced environmental impacts.

Congress should require the CAFE standard be raised to at least 45 mpg for cars and 35 mpg for light trucks, to be phased in over five years. The auto industry has had almost 20 years to gear up for this schedule, given their bragging about their Research & Development programs. Consumers will save money at the pump, the air we breathe will be cleaner, and the amount of oil we import will decrease. For more information on fuel efficiency vs. safety visit: https://www.Citizen.org. We can start brightening our energy future by strengthening our fuel efficiency standards - even Detroit has had enough lead time to catch up with Tokyo.

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